Female Virginity and Male Desire in Seventeenth Century Carpe Diem Poetry Back in the seventeenth century, a woman‟s responsibility was to preserve her virginity until marriage. A woman who had sexual intercourse before her wedding was considered undesirable and a slut. At the same time, men had sexual needs and desires that they wanted to fulfill, may they be married to the woman of their choice or not. Dealing with this issue of virginity and the concept of using time to its fullest (carpe diem—Latin for “seize the day”) are two of the most famous poems of this time. Robert Herrick‟s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” as well as Andrew Marvell‟s “To His Coy Mistress” have a similar opinion about how a woman should use her youth and virginity, but have different ideas about whether to get married first or not.
Robert Herrick‟s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” is a poem of 16 lines composed in four stanzas, arranged in even stanzas of four lines each. The title indicates that the poem is addressed to “virgins,” meaning young, unmarried women. In the first stanza, the speaker tells the women to “gather ye rosebuds” (line 1) as long as they can, using the flower to symbolize the women‟s beauty. It is also mentioned that “Old Time is still a-flying” (line 2). The use of “old” and “flying” is an oxymoron, because they contradict each other. Normally, something that is old is not really fast and especially not flying. At the end of the first stanza, the speaker points out that “this same flower that smiles today, Tomorrow will be dying” (lines 3-4). Here he gets serious, saying that because time runs by fast, those flowers—and therefore the women‟s beauty—will die and diminish soon.
The second stanza follows the same scheme as the first stanza, but instead of using flowers, the author chose to use the sun, “the glorious lamp of heaven” (line 5). Herrick speaks of the rising and the setting of the sun and therefore of the beginning and end of life. In lines six and seven—“The higher he‟s a-getting, The sooner will his race be run”—he talks about the positives of the rising sun and that it gets more beautiful until it suddenly reaches its peak. From then on, it is only going downwards. This is also a metaphor for the female beauty. Women become more beautiful until they reach a certain age, and from that time on, their beauty diminishes slowly. The first half of the poem is about how fast time runs and that beauty and life can end sooner than expected.
In the third stanza, the speaker gets more sentimental. He says that the best time in the life is the youth, and when this time is over, it only gets worse. The poem ends with an advice for the women to “use your time, And while ye may, go marry” (lines 13-14). The speaker results that if the women wait forever and not lose their virginity now while they are young, they will be alone for the rest of their life. However, Herrick demands that the women first get married before having sex.
Herrick uses nature as well as religion to express his opinion in “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.” Herrick uses the statement that everything in nature dies (flowers die, the sun sets, blood gets cold) to relate it to human life. The rosebuds in the first line are a symbol of experience including love and sexuality. Being buds and still having to blossom, those flowers—like the virgins—have not revealed their full beauty yet. At the same time, the flower will die soon, meaning that death will be here sooner than expected. In the second stanza, Herrick follows the same pattern and talks about the sun and its rising and setting. The sun is characterized as glorious, emphasizing its beauty. However, the sun will soon be setting too and leaving “the coy virgins…in physical and emotional darkness.” In the third stanza, the speaker states that the best age is the time when the blood is younger. This refers to the change of warm blood to cold blood at the stage of death (Moran 1-2).
There are also several Christian and Pagan allegories to be found in the poem. The most evident is the advice to “go marry”. This holy procedure is an obligation to have sex.
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- Romina Müller (Author), 2011, Female Virginity and Male Desire in Seventeenth Century Carpe Diem Poetry, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/174798